Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

May 19, 2013

Autism program is reason for graduate’s progress

CATLETTSBURG — The old clipping from 2001 is somewhere ... tucked into a drawer, in a stack on top of the cabinet or boxed up in the back of the closet.

Elizabeth Baker pokes around her modest home in rural Catlettsburg, but she isn’t sure where she squirreled away the article featuring her son, Aaron. She hid it because Aaron has his own ideas on what to do with newspapers.

He insists on having two newspapers every day, mainly because he likes to draw on them, separate the pages and clip out things that interest him. It’s one of the unexplained quirks of his autism, a still-mysterious brain disorder that, according to researchers, affects as many as one in 88 people to varying degrees.

The clipping is a Daily Independent feature from 2001 about the Boyd County School District’s autism program, which then was about two years old and just starting to show its worth.

There are two pictures of Aaron, who was then 8. One shows him with a smile on his face and the other in the throes of misery, his face scrunched up and his fingers in his ears.

His paroxysms resulted from visitors entering the classroom and disrupting the boy’s delicate sense of order — a common characteristic among the autistic.

Also in the second picture, teacher Becky Golden is cradling Aaron from behind, her arms clasped in front of him and her chin resting on the crown of his head.

Elizabeth Baker would remember those days even if her son had not been the focus of a newspaper story, because she credits the district’s autism program with bringing Aaron at least partway out of the mental and emotional shell constructed by the condition.

Now 21, Aaron donned a crimson cap and gown last week and graduated from Boyd County High School. She has a picture of that too, Aaron posing with a smile on his face and a newspaper in his right hand.

He reads at a second-grade level, far from ideal, but so much better than Baker once expected that she calls the program and Golden “godsends” for Aaron. “They connected and he wanted to learn for her,” she said.”They never gave up. I can’t thank them enough for never giving up.”

The district launched the program when Golden and other special education faculty approached then-superintendent Bill Capehart with a proposal. Capehart, who had a strong background in special education, backed them and the program was approved.

The program got off to a strong start when Golden and others studied at a national teachers’ training program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. What they learned there and through other studies turned them into specialists in the specific needs of autistic children.

Autism faculty learned the techniques they needed to make the most of the classroom experience for their students. “Some schools put autistic children in behavior classrooms, but behavior is not the disability,” Golden said.

The specialized training “has been a life-changing experience,” she said.

Over the years the autism program has proven more valuable and more necessary with the expansion of research into the condition.

While still imperfectly understood, autism now is believed to affect one in 88 children, compared to the one in 250 figure that was the standard a decade or so ago. The reason for the statistical bump is the improvement in scientific understanding of the condition, which scientists now know exists in a range from mild to severe.

Aaron Baker was born in 1992, seemingly a normal baby, and didn’t exhibit signs of autism until he was 2. He stopped looking at his parents and quit using the 20 or so words he had learned.

A speech therapist suggested testing for autism and they got the diagnosis just before he turned 3.

He spent the next three years in early learning programs until Golden launched the program; Aaron was one of four in the original class.

Over the years, first at Ponderosa Elementary, where the program is located for younger children, and later at the middle and high schools, faculty worked with Aaron and tracked his progress. When he was nine and showing signs of hitting his head and otherwise hurting himself, teachers and aides worked closely with Baker to minimize the harm.

“It was immaculate the way they handled it. They were always professional. They always called me if there were problems and asked for my suggestions, or notified me if they needed me to come get him,” Baker said. “Communication was always open.”

That continued in high school. “Boyd County High School has bent over backwards to help educate Aaron,” she said.

He was there seven years and was learning slowly but steadily the entire time, Baker said. By now he can add double-digit numbers and she believes he is still teachable.

When he was first diagnosed, some suggested she institutionalize him, but that has never been an option, she said. “There’s a reason God gave him to me. I want to do for him because that is what was chosen.”

As he has grown older and larger, keeping him has gotten more difficult. Aaron goes where his mother goes, including to England Hill Freewill Baptist Church, where she says the congregation accepted him “right off the bat.”

But autistic people are prone to public displays of distress that can be loud and intimidating. Every autistic person is different and reacts to different visual, aural and emotional cues.

Aaron, for instance, is sensitive to certain musical tones and has been known to turn off radios or televisions uninvited if the sound annoyed him.

About three times a day he has what Baker refers to as an “episode,” usually two minor ones and one major.

Still, considering his complete lack of verbal ability and complete intolerance for the presence of strangers when he entered the program, Aaron has made significant progress — Golden calls it lifechanging progress. “There is hope that he can be productive to society and that’s our goal,” she said.

The future is uncertain, but Baker doesn’t want to give up on her son. “If I can keep him with me until I die, I will,” she said.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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